Perfectionism in the workplace

Written by
Ramya Mohan

13 Oct 2016

13 Oct 2016 • by Ramya Mohan

Let us consider perfectionism in the workplace. Needing to ensure tasks are completed well is essential to any organisation and its employees. The concept of ‘quality’ is inherently based on ensuring consistent high standards that require a clear dose of aiming for perfectionism. 

However, tight work schedules, deadlines and pressures in the context of an an individualistic /familial/ organisational culture of high expectations and a quest for perfectionism can promote anxiety and contribute to reduced work efficiency/output. 

The ECA (Epidemiological Catchment Areas Study ) found that generalised anxiety appears earlier and increases more gradually than other anxiety disorders. This is more likely to be in those with childhood fears and marital/sexual disturbances.The Edmonton study showed a high rate of association of phobic anxiety with depression, alcohol use, drug abuse and OCD.

Though perfectionism can manifest anywhere, difficulties may be actively masked in social /external environments like work settings and show up in ‘safer’/home environments. It may not be immediately apparent at work but ultimately, the struggling employee starts to show signs of reduced effectiveness and productivity. Equally, uncontrolled anxiety or panic may rapidly take over in the thick of an external environment (work or social) home may feel calmer, safer and less anxiety-provoking, leading to sickness and absences from work.

Anxiety linked to a quest for perfectionism may show up with bodily symptoms like a fluttering heart or queasy tummy, shaking hands or sweating. Employees may develop feelings of worry or fear that is out of proportion to the situation. There may be an avoidance of the (feared) task at hand, it may feel like it the situation at hand is not in one's control. 

Is perfectionism driving your employees or bringing them down?

There is a thin line between trying to get something right and trying to get something 'absolutely' right or 'just perfect'. Too much contemplation, excessive ruminations about how best to get it 'just' right and recurrent/ intrusive thoughts about needing to get it exactly right to prevent consequences that are illogical/out of proportion to the reality of the situation are warning signs. Taking too much time to complete a task (where productivity does not match the time invested) or compulsive/repetitive behaviours to manage recurring thoughts or prevent unrealistic feared outcomes - all these are 'red flags' to show that the lines from healthy / optimal performance towards concerning issues with perfectionism or OCD have been crossed.

An individual and an organisation can take steps to ensure perfectionism does not tip over into concerning territory. Access to mentoring and peer-support systems at every step is crucial.

Being aware of anxiety –provoking situations that demand ‘perfection’ is the first step. Knowing responsiveness and adaptation styles to anxiety-raising situations is the next step towards towards more effective management. Consider the specific situations when difficulties were initially observed. Has there been a generalisation towards similar or all situations? Recognising the initial trigger incident(s) can help with addressing underling fears and anxieties that may not be immediately apparent. 

'Preparedness' means you are as ready as possible to face an anxiety-provoking situation, that you know when to stop and that you know calming strategies at the outset. Be prepared in advance for various eventualities and work out simple distraction strategies. Remember that behavioural patterns take time to reverse once they set in so be consistent and committed to make changes.